How to get used to inventing a dish with just a few ingredients

Updated: Mar 25

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a contestant in one of those cooking shows, where you had to whip up a spectacular dish using surprise ingredients from a mystery box?

It sounds both fun and funny. Entertaining, even (especially if you’re just playing and imagining it in your own kitchen).

Actually, it could all very well be, since in your case it’s make-believe. But what if it wasn’t? 😊

The real deal

What if you really had to face a mystery box challenge – and the stakes were high?

We know someone who just did, and can answer this question successfully: Chef Mark Zaragoza, Chef De Cuisine of The Cellar at Grand Hyatt Manila, Philippines. 😊

Chef Mark has a few tricks up his sleeve

He bested five chefs from Hyatt hotels in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan to win the Regional Semi-Final of The Good Taste Series 2019 held at Grand Hyatt Macau last month.

The Good Taste Series is an annual global competition that features the hotel chain’s cooks and chefs, who’re given a chance to show off their creativity, culinary skills and talents.

Next up for Chef Mark? The Asia Pacific final in November 2019. And if he wins that, there’s the global final next year.

If you’re also wondering what was inside the Regional Semi-Final mystery box (theirs is a mystery black box), here’s the list: yellow spring chicken, Boston lobster, Brussel sprouts, pomelo and veal sweet bread.

Chef Mark came up with Butter Poach Lobster, Sweat Bread, Pomelo with Lobster Vinaigrette and Hicken Roulade, Parma Ham with Leek Sauce.

Sounds heavenly. 😊

So how do you prepare yourself for a mystery box?

Even if we’re not involved in a cooking competition or show, tackling a mystery box can sharpen our instincts in the kitchen. Chef Mark tells us how he did it. 😊

#1 Read cookbooks

“It’s always been a habit. It may seem old school, ‘cause now we have the internet and all, but it has always been my style. It helped a lot for the mystery black box because I drew a lot of ideas from there.”

You can rely on old recipes too

#2 Practise

“At Grand Hyatt Manila, we also have The Cellar Talks every first Wednesday of the month, where we do something off-menu. This helped me get used to the challenge of creating something new.”

#3 Learn from the experts

“Of course, the training I acquired from all the people I worked with helped a lot to pull off the ideas.”

#4 Clear your mind

“Before the Regional Semi-Final, I made sure to get enough rest and focus on the competition.”

#5 Map out your strategy

“When the mystery ingredients were revealed, I took the time to plan not only my dish but also on how I would maximise the four hours given to us.”

What really happened (or should happen)

Chef Mark also reached a few conclusions and gained a couple of new insights about his experience. 😊

They might help you when you find yourself working with only a few ingredients, like he did. (Like most of us usually do in our own kitchens, really.)

“I think cooking with a few ingredients is not really the challenge”

Tip: Use what you’ve learnt

“I believe one should equip oneself with the knowledge and skills by researching and by experience, working with other chefs who share your passion and encourage you to persevere. They inspire you to do your best, endure all long hours, mistakes and pains, because you see firsthand that they endure it as well.”

“I like keeping my dish simple and straightforward”

Tip: Don’t go overboard

“I want that the taste that will stand out be the flavour of the main dish. I also like to stick to the classics.

“Aside from the taste, cooking the food properly is of utmost importance. Before making anything also I always take the time to plan everything, so that I can maximise the time and ingredients.”

“During the competition, I was both excited and nervous”

Tip: Tap into your emotions

“This is my first time to compete outside the country. I came early to familiarise myself with the area. The first two hours was pure pressure. I was even thinking of changing my dish because I was nervous. But I decided to stick to my plan, focus on my dish and do my best.”

“After we presented the dish, I was really tired and hungry”

Tip: Treat yourself for a job well done

“… and all I could think about was where to eat dinner. I wasn’t expecting to win, but I was happy that I carried out my plan. So when my name was called, I thought that I was in third place. But when they told me that I won, I was so happy.”

One more thing

Want to try something new? Here’s something to add to your (not-such-a-)mystery box (or your recipes). I asked Chef Mark for his current favourite Philippine ingredient.

“I love fresh pigeon peas or kadyos. It’s usually available in some of the provinces in the Philippines,” he says.

“It’s a seasonal vegetable, and it’s only available from November to February. We usually cook it in fish broth with some dried fish or fresh saltwater fish. I haven’t tried serving it in the restaurant, though.”

How about it? Ready to master your own mystery box? 😊

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